Talking Manipulation with Susan Gillis Chapman

I’ve been in many conversations this last week that were difficult. Difficult because I felt attacked, judged, and overall really misunderstood.

It was like I was being thrown into a trunk and someone was shutting the lid and fastening the lock.

What we say has an impact. And how we express ourselves can either help our hurt.

We can’t change another person, but what we can do is learn more about what pushes one to use manipulative language, how to respond to these kinds of situations so that we feel better and not worse, and if we notice ourselves using language to power over finding ways to change our habits.

I reached out to Susan Gillis Chapman, author of  The Five Keys to Mindful Communication, to get her thoughts around communication and power.

Susan Gillis Chapman

Susan Gillis Chapman

1) In your experience what are some signs that someone is using communication to manipulate or to assert power? Are there any general behaviors you’ve seen?

In my book, The Five Keys To Mindful Communication, there are a few examples of what I call ‘red light’ communication patterns. One of them is using ‘weasel words’- a deceptive way to divert attention from what’s really going on by changing the narrative. For instance a bully in the workplace could describe his or her behavior as being a ‘conflict’ rather than an act of aggression. 
Another example of asserting power is what I call ‘heartless mind’, a way of using logic to justify being cruel. There are lots of examples of how we do this, and I describe four stages of blaming that go from complaint to retaliation.


2)  What are some ways a person could respond to manipulative comments?

One way not to get hooked is to simply say ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’, which distances you from the story line, puts the problem back on the other person and opens the door to you having your own experience. In my book I describe four specific strategies for interrupting the ‘heartless mind’ conversation, which are basically not letting the bully voice succeed in creating a target.

3) If you’re the one to power over people what are some ways mindful communication could help in harmonizing your relationships? What would some of the hurdles be?

First of all this is a very good question because we all need to begin with ourselves instead of pointing the finger at other people. How do you notice your own blind spots? This is the essence of what mindful communication is– waking up to the present moment reality that we normally don’t see when we’re distracted by our red light patterns. So the key practice is listening for feedback. I think back to my own experience, the first year of being a supervisor in a mental health center. I attended lots of training programs on management and human relations, but I cringe when I remember how crudely I tried to implement these policies, not paying attention to the personal impact they were having on the real human beings I was supervising. So feedback begins by paying attention on a moment to moment basis,  using the natural wakefulness of your body, the tenderness of your heart and the wisdom of your open mind.
The main hurdle is relying on policies or instructions without having enough confidence in yourself. 

4) What are some of the issues fueling those who use manipulative language?

People who manipulate others are supporting their/ our own false confidence. This is the red light pattern that keeps covering up the yellow light fear that there’s something wrong with ourselves. So we keep trying to manage other people as a diversion. There’s a whole culture of manipulation out there that we can use to justify doing this, staying in our blind spot. What takes real courage is to wake up and see for ourselves that manipulating people is a ridiculous and hopeless way to be in relationship. The relationship we keep missing is the one with ourselves. 

5) What do you believe to be the three things needed for someone to change how they communicate?

Good that you asked for three. My book says ‘five keys’ but really, it all boils down to three. Trust the wakefulness of your body. Trust the tenderness of your heart. Trust the openness of your mind. 
The way to gain this kind of confidence is through mindfulness meditation practice and forming a ‘green zone’ of trustworthy friends who give you feedback.

6) What question are you always asked and what’s the answer you give?

The most common question is a good one: why do I recommend that you open more to vulnerability when it sets you up to be a victim. 

The answer only makes sense if you change the paradigm. The victim-bully pattern is supported by a red zone culture, a culture of fear. There’s  lots to say about that but basically we give our power away if we abandon the wisdom of our inner vulnerability, and people who abuse that will definitely try to hurt us. 

The green zone is a culture of kindness. Here, we learn to trust ourselves and each other because we’re willing to unmask. Being vulnerable is like making love– it’s not helpful to be wearing a suit of armor. It’s also like the first relationship between an infant and a mother, we are born to trust that our vulnerability is protected. 

I’m confident that human beings are basically good, healthy, kind and trustworthy. Cultures of fear will never be more powerful than a culture of kindness. Even if it’s only one person at a time, once you see this you can build your own green zones in your life and extend them as far as possible.

Susan Gillis Chapman was born in Montreal, Canada, and grew up in Vancouver, the oldest of five children. She attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart, where she was first introduced to the practice of mindful communication. She later studied literature at the University of British Columbia and received an MA in Buddhist and Western Psychology from Naropa Institute ( University) in Boulder Colorado. Her career as a psychotherapist and family therapist included ten years working in the field of domestic violence. She was clinical director of Tongass Community Counseling Center in Juneau Alaska.

In 2002 she and her husband, Jerry, completed a three year group retreat at Gampo Abbey and they were invited by Pema Chodron to stay on as staff for six more years. Susan was appointed as Druppon, or retreat leader. In 2008 they returned to Vancouver to help care for Susan’s elderly parents. Susan is an acharya, or senior teacher, in the Shambhala Community.

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